• Kyodo

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With the global sports calendar largely on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, professional athletes are showing fans that their skills are — to some extent — transferable to the virtual world.

Athletes have faced their rivals in online games, with some competitions streaming on video-sharing platforms to raise money in support of medical organizations engaged in the fight against COVID-19 or to help fellow athletes who have taken a financial hit during the shutdown of sports.

Esports have seen increased interest from sports fans who have been both forced into isolation and starved of their favorite spectating pastimes.

At the virtually recreated Manolo Santana Stadium last month, tennis star Kei Nishikori utilized powerful backhands and drop shots on the way to defeating American Frances Tiafoe in the Mutua Madrid Open Virtual Pro, an esports edition of the ATP Tour Masters 1,000 clay-court tournament.

Unfortunately for Japan’s highest-ranked male player, it was his only win in three group-phase games, coming amid losses to Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas and Italian world No. 11 Fabio Fognini.

Since the Madrid Open scheduled this month was canceled due to the virus, tournament organizers instead ran a 16-man, 16-woman tournament in which players let their fingers do the work.

The event included a total purse of €300,000 ($324,000) in the two competitions, split evenly between ATP and WTA players. The winners were allowed to decide how much they would donate to their fellow tennis pros who are facing a difficult time due to cancellations and postponements of tournaments.

Former world No. 1 Andy Murray, who has won 46 ATP Tour titles, captured the men’s virtual championship after winning a tight 7-6 final over Belgium’s David Goffin.

In an Instagram post, Murray revealed he planned to donate the prize money in full, half to Britain’s National Health Service and half to the player relief fund.

“(I) hope anyone who watched got some sort of enjoyment out of it in these tough times,” Murray posted.

Similar competitions were held in other professional sports. Major League Baseball ran a video game tournament won by Tampa Bay Rays ace Blake Snell.

Including championship prize money for the 2018 American League Cy Young winner, a total of $175,000 was raised for charity organizations.

The MLB, which has canceled spring training and postponed the start of the season, held the video game tournament with one player from each of the 30 clubs competing.

Web Nasri (real name Taichi Aoki), a member of the Japan Football Association's esports national team, answers questions following an international esports charity tournament on April 21. | SPORTS ASSIST YOU / VIA KYODO
Web Nasri (real name Taichi Aoki), a member of the Japan Football Association’s esports national team, answers questions following an international esports charity tournament on April 21. | SPORTS ASSIST YOU / VIA KYODO

Since suspending the season in mid-March, North America’s National Basketball Association has also hosted an esports competition featuring 16 players, including the Washington Wizards’ Japanese rookie Rui Hachimura.

One of the most popular games, played by Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant, attracted nearly 400,000 viewers.

“Even though it’s a video game, all the players took the competition seriously. It was fun to compete against each other with that mindset,” Hachimura said in a Twitter Q&A posted by the Wizards in April.

The 22-year-old Hachimura said he practiced ahead of the tournament with his friends to get used to playing the game using Microsoft’s Xbox console.

Esports have gained popularity around the world. According to Netherlands-based analytics company Newzoo, the market is estimated to exceed $1.5 billion in 2023.

Soccer player Shinji Okazaki, who plays for Huesca in the Spanish second division, played in an international charity tournament in April with pro esports player Web Nasri, who was named to the Japan Football Association’s recently launched esports national team.

The tournament, which included players from 43 countries and regions, saw esports players team up with professional athletes or celebrities.

Okazaki and Nasri, whose real name is Taichi Aoki, defeated the Malaysian team, while about 3,000 fans watched the video posted by the Japan Football Association.

Nasri, who is also a 20-year-old university student, said, “I want to attract as much attention as I can during this time.”

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